The Other Way Around

I like shiny new toys.

You’re probably thinking right now, “of course he does, he’s a guy.” And, well, its true…we really don’t grow up, its just that our toys really do get bigger and more expensive. More and more over the past couple of years, though, I’ve been questioning why it is that I like new toys so much. Doesn’t even matter so much what the toy is, it gives me a bit of a buzz. Yesterday, Karen and I were brainstorming ways to solve some ergonomics issues in our apartment. The short-term solution was to buy a Bluetooth keyboard for one of our Macs. I nearly tripped over myself getting to Best Buy. Forgot about what I had been contemplating earlier in the day, at least temporarily. The tools for our life briefly became ends to themselves, rather than means.

Today, I was having a conversation with a co-worker who had deactivated his Facebook page, and who refuses to have a Twitter account. He says that he did so because he wanted to be able to spend more time with his family…more human contact and less cyber-contact. We discussed the use of social networking as a tool. Its important that it stays there, remains only a tool. Similar is our hardware, especially with such slick gadgets to grab our attention and time like iPhones and (breathe deeply) the rumor of a new tablet from Apple by Christmas. Nothing is wrong with these things, and I value their excellent craftsmanship. At the end of the day, however, they are only tools.

We were created as creators. Every one of us, to some degree, experiences the creative impulse. Some paint, some write, some compose. Some solve engineering problems, some strategize how to most effectively teach their classrooms. Creativity takes many different forms, but it is ultimately present in all of us to one degree or another. As creators, it is easy for any of us to fall in love with our creations. A friend’s son recently had a publisher butcher characters he had written, twisting them to be more marketable to the public. My friend said his son felt ill at seeing what had been done to his characters, as though they were his kids that had somehow been mistreated. I can relate to that. When I began in journalism years ago, I remember feeling violated the first time my copy was flipped and re-arranged by the editor. While I eventually developed a tougher skin for that, it still stings a bit when it happens to this day. Those are my words they’re messing with!

The danger in this, as Lewis points out, is idolizing our creation. Just as the artist can idolize her art, so can the inventor idolize his invention. The New York Times recently ran this piece fretting over the possibility that the machines we’ve invented may some day control us instead of the opposite being true, a real life Asmovian fantasy…or perhaps prophecy…that has haunted us since we began inventing technology. A quote from Dr. Eric Horvitz about halfway down the first pages leaped out at me, claiming that “technologists are replacing religion,” and likening their inventive ventures to an eschatalogical importance.

The fact that we create makes us feel powerful. This is not the only reason we do so, at least not in our purest motivation (I hope beauty and social reform play in there somewhere), but it is an effect of creating, nonetheless. Let’s face it, we like to feel empowered. The same is true when I get to hold a shiny new electronic toy…I feel a new power because of the material symbol of lifestyle control in my hand. Art leads us to a feeling of superiority, perhaps, as we are so empowered by our pointing to a deeper truth that we become convinced our creation is the truth in itself. All of these lead to a de-humanization of ourselves, either by replacing humanity with tools intended to help it function more effectively, or by replacing it with the beauty that is intended to lift it to a higher level.

Invention and art have the power to become a religion, but not the spiritual substance necessary to complete our journeys. With creativity comes responsibility, a responsibility beyond quality in our crafts and attention to detail. There is a responsibility, while never permitting our endeavors to become utilitarian, to nonetheless hold our creations at their proper level, and that is in service of the humanity that created them, not the other way around.

And that is a delicate…and difficult…balance to be struck.

Hypothetically, Of Course

Let’s say, just hypothetically, of course, that a group of people recognizes something about itself that is really wrong. I mean, slap-yourself-on-the-forehead, can’t-believe-we-were-actually-that-stupid wrong. Okay. Recognizing the issue is the first step to correcting the issue. Now let’s say that this group of people makes positive strides, along with, to be honest, a few sizable mistakes even though motivations were good, and achieves progress. Let’s say that this group of people sees very pronounced moments of progress over the past few years, and understandably wants to keep putting them out there as proof that full resolution of the issue is being worked toward. Let’s say every now and then an incident occurs that receives substantial media attention. Then every body’s upset again, the whole thing is thrown into a disastrous spiral, and that group of people ends up thinking that they’ve actually made little progress at all, have a long way to go, and starts feeling as though its all hopeless and that there will always be ignorant bigots around.

Oops…I gave it away with that last sentence, didn’t I?

You see, the issue at hand with this (not-so) hypothetical group of people is that they kept the issue always near the surface. They never moved on. They never let it be. They talked about a solution, and attempted to enact a solution, but they never let the problem dip below the surface long enough to permit the solution to take effect. Hard to blame them, in a way…after all, the problem was, in fact, a horrendous one that led to the poor lifestyle and even deaths of many. Wars were fought. Battles were waged, families divided, tears shed. Difficult to let that die, after all. Except that, to not do so kept breathing life into the problem, perhaps just at the points where it might have been dead. Part of the reason for this was fear: to accidentally say anything that could in any way be construed as contributing to the problem was absolutely intolerable, because of the offense it could cause. In this (not-so) hypothetical society, after all, offense was quite possibly the worst thing that could happen next to death, and absolutely everyone had at least one thing that they were just walking through life daring everyone to offend them over.

Then, when a notable slip-up occurred, instead of treating it coherently and respectfully and working to find a solution, the leader of this group of people becomes flustered and says something…well, something that could have had better-chosen words, and something that, again, wouldn’t let the problem die, but perpetuated it into something even more severe.

Well…I guess I really gave it away with that one, right?

While our President apologized today for not choosing his words carefully and contributing to the problem that exploded into our national media when Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested after he apparently raised his voice to a police officer that was called to Gates’ home because of a possible break-in complaint, the point is that the situation was exacerbated, and continues to be, far beyond its actual importance. A mistake likely occurred on the parts of everyone involved, both Gates and the decorated officer who initiated the arrest. Perhaps, though, if the problem were just not empowered as much as it has been, then we wouldn’t have had such angst resulting from it.

I say empowered because we, all of us, continue to give racism more power than it should actually have. We keep it at the forefront, always tip-toeing around it, always bringing it back with reporting like the second Times piece above uses (this “tests” our faith in “racial progress”?), in which the same reporter constantly qualifies and references individuals quoted with phrases such as “who is black,” and then off-handedly mentions the point of view of one prominent source who describes raising his children as “post-racial,” to not see skin color.

Ironic, because that is the crux of the issue. We need to be, and should always have been, “post-racial,” since we once fell short of the ideal status of “non-racial.” I was raised by parents who treated everyone the same, regardless of ethnic origin or skin color. They rarely mentioned these as even identifiers when discussing an individual. I have friends and colleagues of many ethnic origins and skin colors. I see them as people, as individuals. I don’t think of their color or ethnic background when I think of them, except to be aware of how it positively impacts their personality. Perhaps if we all did this, and then raised the following generation without the knowledge of racism as anything other than an historical event…that is to say, if we declared it “dead” and left it that way….then it would be, because we would no longer empower it. To do this, however, a larger cultural issue would need to be addressed, that of our fear of offense. Every time we’re offended, the thing by which we have been offended becomes more powerful than it would otherwise have been.

What if we were created without a concept of race, but just diverse in really artistic ways? That would mean that we have thrust this concept on ourselves, crippling ourselves by intolerance of physiology which is different. To take that perspective would mean celebrating the differences that come with different cultures and ethnic heritages, while not even considering what has been misappropriated in the past. Let it stay in the past. A horrible mistake is a horrible mistake, and certainly racism falls into that category. However, it continues to thrive when we resurrect it every day, and begin to thrust errors into the spotlight in concern of some hypothetical apocalyptic connotation that they supposedly hold for our culture.

Knowledge of history must be maintained, lest it repeat itself. There is a balance to be struck, however, in maintaining that history in such a way that we do not repeat it in our zeal to overcome the problem.

Majoring on the Minors

My college years were tumultuous ones, at best. I began as a music major, was a music education major by my second semester, dropped out entirely, transferred schools, declared a communication major, then theatre, threw in psychology….makes my head hurt just thinking about it. Part of the issue was that I felt as though I had to fit myself into a specific category…that I felt pressured into thinking that I had to be singularly focused. Eventually I succumbed to the promptings of my family in focusing on something that could potentially earn a good income for me in the future, shying away from some of the things that I truly loved (“What are you going to do with a theatre major?”) in favor of an education that would be focused more toward a specific career. Certainly they meant well, and thankfully I have landed in a career in which I can make a difference and in which I can earn income. However, I often wonder what life would have been like had I remained on the path that I initially chose.

Today, my morning began with a post from my friend Catherine entitled “The Humanities Are Dead,” in which she discussed the trend toward adjuncts teaching at universities in higher proportions than tenured professors, and the negative ramifications this has on education. This began the turning of my mental wheels and led to an interesting conversation over on my Facebook page about the link, as three of us hypothesized what the core issue could be. I’ve come to a conclusion that is a bit of an explanation for the tumult I experienced in college (well, the academic tumult, at least), and perhaps even for a few other things as well.

In an industrialized culture such as our own, things tend to be forced into categories with labels by which they can be neatly defined and cross-referenced. Professional fields are victim to this just as is everything else. Thus, universities focus their education in these areas specifically in order to prepare someone to obtain employment in a specific field. In turn, areas of professional practice are able to set standards that force its members to obtain specific educational credentials in order to even the playing field, and (let’ s be honest) just because they can. As a result, education becomes utilitarian, focused only on a goal of earning income, and the concept of “liberal arts” becomes a loosely-utilized tag line to attract students to a school.

Combine this trend with the fact that science is deified and the humanities are treated as cultural events that are good only to have around for weekend entertainment, and we have an industrialized culture that has become enslaved to its industrialization. We major on the minors, obsessing with the physics of how a sunrise casts its light over the landscape before us, while ignoring the poetic contemplation of what it means that it does so.

Just as our culture has become marked by utility without meaning and money at the expense of substance, so has our education followed. As a result, institutions of academia are beginning to lean toward being degree factories that utilize a business model, looking to earn a profit while keeping costs low. Education, however, was never meant to be a business, and the students are losing, often without even knowing that they are losing, because they are blindly rushing into careers with prized pieces of inflexible paper in order to obtain something as fleeting as money. In doing so, they open themselves to life crises when they change careers (as most statistically will at least once), perhaps returning to school in order to begin the process over again.

Then again, that’s good for academia’s business model, isn’t it? Perhaps a coincidence, but…

To this we are leaving our future. I think we should be very concerned, don’t you?

Story Arcs

Karen and I managed to arrange a much-needed change of scenery over the holiday weekend and escaped to the beach. Aside from being completely relaxed and slightly sunburned, another, and more interesting, outcome of this trip was an observation of memory.

What made the trip interesting was that, while we were joining other people for the weekend, the destination was where Karen and I honeymooned. We hadn’t been back since, and the emotional associations that the house, the beach, and the town carried for me took me a bit by surprise…above and beyond what I thought I would experience there.

Memories, I think, are among the most precious gifts given to us, because they remind us of our back story. Interestingly, Karen and I were discussing the value of story in theology and psychology and (oddly) popular music while driving down. What we experienced was a review of the beginnings of our own story.

The friends with whom we were visiting have a daughter. Karen was very close with this girl during her early childhood. However, since grad school and our being married, we live several hours away, and Karen hasn’t been a significant part of this girl’s life in about 5 years. The girl didn’t really remember Karen. I think that’s tragic…to not remember someone influential in your story, a human life that has crossed yours…to not have a referent for where you learned or experienced something that that person may have taught you…that’s something that I can’t imagine. I think it must be similar to what sufferers of certain diseases affecting the memory must experience, although, ironically, they likely don’t know that they’re experiencing it.

I watched Karen re-solidify that relationship over the weekend, and it was fascinating to observe. In the end, while I won’t say they were where they had left off years ago, I certainly think they were on their way. As their story moved forward, they had began to piece together missing links in the preceding chapters, thus solidifying their current lives that much more.

Buechner asserts that all theology is narrative; that is, seen through the lens of one’s life experiences and encounters with God. Similarly, I think that psychology is narrative, also, as it deals with the holistic person. One is not defined by one’s symptoms or pathology alone…those are just pieces of a larger puzzle. One is defined just as much by the lives that touch theirs, by their experiences, by their travels, by their culture…in short, by their story.

I’m glad that Karen renewed her relationship with our friends’ daughter. I’m glad that we had a chance to spend some small time with our friends, because they, and that place, are a huge part of our story, as it interweaves with theirs. To lose any part of that story, any small component, would be to make us less. What I’ve walked away from the weekend with is a renewed sense of importance of how tragic it is to lose any small piece of our story to forgetfulness or neglect.

And, ironically, I forgot to take any pictures.